The gentle simplicity of the opening bars tugged at my heart. Muted colors textured in new ways breathed life into me as they rippled to the surface, only to dissipate in the exotic shimmers of vibrating strings and wood. In the dark of the concert hall piano masterclass, I fell in love – forever.
At my first piano lesson, Dr. Hollander told me he could teach me how to practice, but not how to play. Under his guidance, I had come to understand love through the music of Bach, Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Gershwin, Brahms, and Beethoven, but those loves were nothing compared to the unrequited need I now felt for Debussy’s Homage to Rameau. However, Dr. Hollander forbade me to pursue this new love, probably so his students weren’t competing with the same pieces, and directed me toward other Debussy Images. I learned them and enjoyed them, but I didn’t love them. I longed for that forbidden relationship with the piece I’d heard in masterclass, so, because I owned the music, I practiced it in secret as time allowed. Alas, I transferred schools at the end of that year and never bonded with another piano teacher. The new instructors were interested in notes and rhythms, but not in bringing out the spirits, the colors, and the meanings hidden behind the notes on the pages. But I still owned the music and practiced in secret once in a while.
My first teaching job was in a Saturday-night cowboy town. I’m not much of a socializer, so I was happy to stay in my little house with my very own piano and practice in the evenings. I dug out my copy of Debussy’s Images, Book I, and turned to the forbidden song. The pages were speckled with the thousands of notes and hundreds of accidentals, in addition to the five sharps already in the key signature. Even though I had practiced a bit here and there, I still felt overwhelmed just looking at the pages. But I had heard and yearned, and was determined that this love would not escape me. Night after night, I sorted out notes measure by measure, slowly and painfully, until my hands ached. But the love didn’t come. There were no colors, no shapes, no mirages, only painful reminders that I’m not a great sight-reader and learning has to be rote muscle memory before the music even begins to come alive. Stubborn and determined, I forged ahead, week after week, month after month.
Slowly, and only in certain passages on very good nights, the iridescent colors began to shimmer. Phrases began to dance, shifting, morphing, bending and swaying in the chromatic manipulation of pentatonic and whole tone scales. The harmonic textures became castles and rainbows and waterfalls as they leaped off the pages and into my heart. I was no longer the music maker, it was the music that grabbed my fingers, pulling me over the keys to places I had never known, never imagined, and never dreamed. Though it was only in certain passages on very good nights, it was enough to feed my insatiable hunger for the love I sought.
Though I had never felt religious euphoria, I thought I understood what it must be. In college, I was fascinated by Abraham Maslow’s theories about peak experiences and felt I understood those, too. Great musical performances sometimes left me breathless, but I knew that what I was seeking through the Homage to Rameau was deeper than any of these. I wanted that ecstasy that comes from totally giving yourself up to the music and letting the music become alive in and through you. I knew this could only happen when I was no longer involved in the conscious effort to “play” the music, so I kept practicing and practicing and practicing, hoping and hoping.
And then, one night it happened!
The sound of a piano cannot crescendo once a key is played; instead, it immediately begins to decay. But by some trick of magic that night, the simple, haunting, minor pentatonic melody of the first few bars rose and fell as if each note was alive, breathing life into the next note, and that note birthing the entire phrase, and that phrase giving all its vitality to the first chord. On and on the energy pulsed, whirling a phrase this way and that, only to release it and spin a new partner to a different climax.
The dance continued all around me, but I stood on a bridge beholding a magnificent castle shimmering in the distance, like a painting by Monet, the outlines blending and indistinct, yet definitely a castle. Across the bridge, the stream beckoned me. Obediently I followed, glancing at the castle over my shoulder, but with every step the castle faded. I was back at the beginning again, but this time the colors were textured with hope. I felt I needed to keep walking, as if my real destination was still ahead of me. Wisps of the castle’s sound colors floated around me like bits of dreams that try to be remembered upon waking. Exhausted, I sank down on a grassy patch beside the stream, watching the sunlight create rainbow iridescence on the water. I closed my eyes and saw the castle rising from the water, only to disappear an instant later. But I had seen, I had heard, and I had loved. It was enough.
The final tone dripped off my fingers, creating one last rippling circle on the shimmering aural pond as I lifted my hands from the keys, its rich vibrations echoing off the plaster walls. My spirit was lifted out of my body, transported by some ethereal energy, into radiant light. I was light, I was love, I was wonder and joy, intensely alive but also deeply at peace. I was complete, whole, true shalom.